Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Lord Helps Those Who Cannot Help Themselves” (Exodus 3:1-15)
March 24, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
During the season of Lent the appointed scripture passages continuously demonstrate how God helps people in the wilderness, whatever that wilderness in your life may be. Two weeks ago the appointed scripture passages were about how God helps those in the wilderness of temptation. Today the appointed scriptures are about how God helps those who are stuck in the wilderness.
The collect we prayed today contains a line that cuts against the grain of any form of self-help: “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves” (The Book of Common Prayer 218). “We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves”…some of you may completely disagree with this and may find this sermon completely irrelevant…but some of you may have experienced the truth of this.
Americans spend an estimated ten billion dollars a year on self-help products, including a myriad of self-help books. Listen to what was written about self-help books in a recent online article of the acclaimed business magazine Forbes:
The genre is so wide-ranging that Amazon breaks self-help down into 28 subcategories, among them anger management, creativity, emotions, happiness, inner child, sex, spiritual and success. While of course, many are released at other times of the year, December and January are particularly popular times for many publishers to put out these motivational titles (Rachel Kramer Bussel, January 10, 2019).
Obviously the high sales of self-help books in December and January are due to people making New Year’s resolutions. And yet roughly half of these self-help books are never read past the first chapter, and nearly 90% of them are never finished, let alone applied. During Lent many Christians attempt various feats of self-help under the guise of “Lenten disciplines” only to become discouraged and realize that maybe there is some truth to what we prayed in the collect today.
When I was growing up I remember being taught, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” Perhaps you were taught this too. I tried to live by that for many years, only to learn eventually that it is not only untrue, but also unbiblical—this idea is found nowhere in scripture. What we read in scripture over and over again are various examples of the exact opposite, the truth that “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” But the good news is that we also find the gospel in scripture, a gospel that is a word of comfort and relief for those who need help: “The Lord helps those who cannot help themselves.” That is the gospel.
Please do not mishear me. Of course working hard, being financially responsible, eating right, developing healthy personal and relational habits are all good things, but when it comes to your salvation—and perhaps other areas in your life—at some point or another you will experience the truth that “The Lord helps those who help themselves” is actually a fallacy, while “The Lords helps those who cannot help themselves” is actually the gospel. If you have not yet experienced this, in the words of one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs, “You’re Time is Gonna Come.”
To be honest and vulnerable with you, I did not really understand this until I experienced it personally and professionally in my mid-thirties. I will spare you the details, but I finally learned the hard way that “The Lord helps those who help themselves will eventually fall short and you will need the gospel of “The Lord helps those who cannot help themselves.” During that season in my life a specific song by another British rock band, Coldplay, spoke right to my heart. The song was written by the lead singer of Coldplay, Chris Martin, for his then wife Gwyneth Paltrow after her father died. It is a song about help for those who cannot help themselves:
When you try your best but you don’t succeed
When you get what you want but not what you need
When you feel so tired but you can’t sleep
Stuck in reverse
When the tears come streaming down your face
‘Cause you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone but it goes to waste
What could be worse?
And here is the gospel…
Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you
Tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you cannot replace…
Tears streaming down your face
I promise I will learn from all my mistakes
Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you
(From their 2005 album X & Y)
Today’s passage from the Old Testament book of Exodus is high octane gospel about the Lord helping those who cannot help themselves. Moses, as an adopted son of Pharaoh, had grown up with unimaginable wealth, the best education in the known world, royal privilege upon royal privilege. But as a young man when he saw a fellow Hebrew, who unlike himself was a slave in Egypt, being beaten, he tried to help and ended up killing the instigator and hiding his body, and later fleeing to the wilderness for his life (Exodus 2:11-15). Moses had to leave all his wealth and privilege behind and later began working as a shepherd, a job Egyptians utterly despised, and not even for himself, but for his father-in-law. Scripture tells Moses was not just in the wilderness but that “he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God” (Exodus 3:1), where one of the most famous episodes in scripture took place:
There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:2-6).
Moses had earlier learned the hard way that in spite of his wealth and education and royal privilege when it came to helping himself it all fell short, and so Moses ended up being the perfect person for God to call to help his fellow Israelites who had been enslaved in Egypt for four centuries, fellow Israelites who likewise could not help themselves—as the writer of Exodus continues:
Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:7-10).
Does Moses jump at this opportunity because he thinks he is a hero who will save the day for his fellow Israelites? Hardly, as he asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring out the Israelites out of Egypt?” In response God assured him, “I will be with you.” But Moses continued, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” And as you probably know, God replied, “I Am Who I Am…Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you…The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:11-15).
God did exactly what he told Moses he would do; he sent Moses, was with Moses, and through Moses delivered the Israelites from four centuries of slavery in Egypt, and went on to sustain them through forty years in the wilderness, and eventually brought them to the “good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” In other words, the Lord helped those who could not help themselves. The heart of Moses’ ministry was his dependence on God’s help, for scripture describes him as “very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).
This episode from the Old Testament foreshadowed what happened many centuries later when another shepherd in the wilderness, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, would save not just the Israelites but the whole world. With humility that surpassed even Moses, Jesus willingly left heaven and became incarnate not only as a human being, but as a slave, in order to save a world enslaved to sin and death, in order to help a world full of people unable to help themselves, including you.
The same One who met Moses when he was stuck in the wilderness and not only changed the whole direction of his life but of the entire nation of Israel has observed the misery in your life, has heard your cries for help, and has known all your sufferings. And out of unconditional love for you Jesus journeyed beyond the wilderness to a different mountain of God, Calvary, where he died in order to help a world unable to help itself.
The same One who called Moses repeatedly by name, calls you by name (John 10:3). The same One who assured Moses, “I will be with you,” is with you, “Emmanuel…God with us” (Matthew 1:23). The same One revealed his identity as I Am Who I Am over and over, “I Am the Bread of Life who will feed you in the wilderness…I Am the Good Shepherd who calls you by name…I Am the Door that is open to you when every other door you have tried have been locked shut…I Am the Way when you are lost, I Am the Truth when you have been lied to again and again, I Am the Life when you feel dead inside…I Am the Resurrection and the Life who assures you that death is not the end of the story” (John 6:35; 10:11; 10:7; 14:6; and 11:25).
Think about your life for a moment. Is there an area where you are stuck in the wilderness, an area that defies every self-help book you have ever started reading, where you try your best and you don’t succeed, where you get what you want but not what you need, where you feel so tired but you can’t sleep, where you are stuck in reverse? The Lord helps you “when the tears come streaming down your face.” The Lord helps you when “you lose something you can’t replace.” The Lord helps you “when you love someone but it goes to waste.” The Lord helps you when it cannot get any worse. The Lord’s office is at rock bottom, at the end of your rope.
And Jesus Christ, the Light of the World (John 8:12) “will guide you home and ignite your bones” and will not just “try to fix you” but will actually save you.
The gospel is good news for those stuck in the wilderness, good news for those who have learned the hard way that they have no power in themselves to help themselves because the gospel is that the Lord helps those who cannot help themselves.